What draws you to write lyrics for a film? Is it the script, the director or composer?

It’s always the script. I must know what I’m getting into. Many films have been offered to me recently, including something on the Babri Masjid and Godhra. If I feel the film will stir up communal conflict or discord, I stay away. If a film promotes communal harmony, which for me is beyond religion, I am happy to work on it because the film’s premise is in line with my beliefs.

What sort of compromises do you need to make when writing lyrics?

I call them constraints rather than compromises. When I write a poem, I do not have to worry about using a higher Urdu vocabulary because I know the reader knows Urdu well. In film lyrics, I avoid Persianised words because they are not widely understood.

Lyrics are not read but heard and seen in a film. If you’re reading a poem, you can underline a word you don’t understand, but when you see the song on the screen or hear it playing, there is nothing you can do.

Nasreen Munni Kabir (inset) did some of her interviews with Gulzar over Skype

I usually write words on the metre of the tune. It could be the other way round, and the composer will write the tune based on my words and metre.

The context in which the song appears in the story is of key importance. Does the song enhance the story in some way? Does it add another dimension to the screen character?

The lyrics should match the vocabulary a character uses in dialogue. If the hero is an Urdu speaker, you can’t introduce Sanskritised Hindi into the lyrics.

I wrote a song in Satya, a gangster film, for a character who is a violent man, a man who listens to no one and shoots people who contradict him or come in his way. He decides to sing a song when he is drunk. The gangster cannot sing a Ghalib ghazal like ‘Dil-e-naadaan, tujhe hua kya hai’ [O innocent heart, what has come over you?] So what will he sing? ‘Goli maar bheje mein, bheja shor karta hai’ [Shoot a bullet through my head. My head is full of turmoil].

Indian cinema has always had songs since the coming of sound in 1931. What do you think attracts people to a song? Is it the words or the tune?

The tune. That’s what stays in your mind. When the tune starts galloping, you need reins to hold on to it. The words become useful there. They are the reins that allow you to ride the horse.

I believe words should amaze or amuse. Only then will the listener want to understand the meaning of the song.

In the Company of a Poet: Rupa Publications, 208 pages, ₹ 495
In the Company of a Poet: Rupa Publications, 208 pages, ₹ 495

It doesn’t affect the vocabulary but the imagery. If a song is filmed indoors, you cannot describe a cascading waterfall. And if the song is filmed in the valleys of Kashmir or Scotland, the imagery cannot describe the desert of Rajasthan.

You also have to provide images that match the time of day when the song appears in the film. If the song is shot in sunlight, using the imagery of the moon will clearly not work at all.

I have always felt that lyricists subtly impose the location of a song.

Yes, and in many cases you could say the songwriter also determines the appropriate time when the song should be filmed. He is required to provide the visual context through his words.

Mani Ratnam, whom I call Mani sir, is the only director who asks me for abstract imagery. That’s why the songs I write for him are so different. Plus, A.R. Rahman is the one composing the music. Think of Dil Se and the way Mani sir has picturised the songs. So imaginatively done! For me, working with Mani sir and Rahman is like celebrating Eid.

I find many of your songs have an element of storytelling. Is it because you are first and foremost a writer?

I think it is because I directed films. Problems arise when lyricists don’t participate in the process of the film, and they must. Lyrics are a part of the film text. But some lyricists are known to only ask questions like, “Do you need a duet? A solo? Is it an indoor or an outdoor song?" That’s hardly enough, is it?

I have always believed that Shailendra was the best lyricist of Hindi cinema. I know he was actively involved in the films he worked on and knew filmmaking very well. He shaped his songs to suit the characters and through his lyrics, added other dimensions to the story. This would not have been possible without his complete understanding of the characters, the screenplay’s subtext, the scenes and locations.

Can you give me an example of changing expressions in your songs?

Take the lines in ‘Kajrare’ from Bunty aur Babli by Shaad Ali. Twenty years ago people would not express their thoughts in this way: Aankhen bhi kamaal karti hain, Personal se sawaal karti hain [Eyes like yours do amazing things, asking such personal questions]. When we initially discussed ‘Kajrare,’ we thought the song could be filmed in a dhaba [roadside café] where long distance trucks halt. That is why the opening couplet has lines in the style of the inscriptions painted on the back of lorries. The police officer, Dashrath Singh, played by Amitabh, is waiting in the dhaba to arrest the thieves, Bunty and Babli. Dashrath Singh, who has never seen Bunty, is busy talking to a man and does not realize the man is none other than Bunty himself.

When Aishwarya Rai agreed to make a guest appearance and perform the song, the location of the dhaba was changed. She was fantastic and the song was a great hit.

Edited excerpts from Nasreen Munni Kabir’s In the Company of a Poet.

Close